America’s Founders understood that the freedom to live out one’s beliefs and conscience – liberty – along with life, is a fundamental “unalienable right.” An unalienable right is a right that you possess simply because you are a human being created in the image of God with dignity, purpose, and value. This is not a right bestowed on you by a governing body; it is a foundational right that government exists to protect from those who would threaten it.
Our Founders took great pains to ensure and explicitly show both with their words (the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment) and their actions that Americans possess not just the right to believe as we see fit, but, more importantly, the freedom to practice what we believe.
Throughout its history, America’s fidelity to this ideal made this nation a “Shining City on a Hill” for those persecuted and discriminated against because of their beliefs. People, beginning with the Pilgrims, have come to America under very difficult circumstances simply for the right to live out the expression of their faith. Whether your personal faith is part of a major denomination or a minority sect, the freedom to express your beliefs is a God-given human right and a truly American value.
Unfortunately, this stellar track record of liberty and commitment to freedom has come under attack in the last 25 years. Thankfully, many Americans, both then and now, have taken action to protect religious freedom.
A quick historic recap: The U.S. Supreme Court in the 1990 Smith case overreached by decreasing a person’s religious freedom, reducing the standard of scrutiny (the burden on the government to prove it has reason to constrain your religious liberty). This outraged the public – liberals and conservatives alike joined forces. Congress introduced the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (abbreviated RFRA). The long title was “The Religious Freedom Restoration Act: An act to protect the free exercise of religion” H.R. 1308. The new federal law passed the U.S. House unanimously and the U.S. Senate 97-3. President Clinton signed it into law in 1993, and later gave a speech praising it and the special role religious freedom plays in American history. As President Clinton said when he signed the Federal RFRA into law in 1993, “This law basically says that the government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion.” In a 1997 case, the U.S. Supreme Court maintained the constitutionality of RFRA; however, it struck down the provision applying the law to the states. The Court said it was up to the states to pass their own RFRA. In 2014, Mississippi became the 19th state to pass a RFRA, joining Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, and Virginia.
Ohio does not have a RFRA, so we need to do what other states have done to protect the free exercise of religion for all Ohioans.
Never before in American history has the need been so great, because never before has the government been so hostile to Americans of particular faiths.
From students being reprimanded for writing the name of Jesus on a school assignment or reading a Bible during “free reading time,” to restrictions on the rights and freedom of military chaplains, to businesses and nonprofits being fined by the government for not purchasing and distributing life-terminating abortifacient drugs, to private citizens being punished for not participating in same-sex wedding ceremonies, religious freedom is under attack in today’s America.
In 1993, Congress, including liberals like Ted Kennedy and Chuck Schumer, passed RFRA to reiterate the American ideal that people of all belief systems, all races, all backgrounds, and all sexual attractions have the freedom to practice their sincerely held religious beliefs unless the government can prove a compelling state interest in curtailing them.
RFRA was central to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby ruling on June 30th. Justice Alito, writing the majority opinion, stated, “Congress enacted RFRA in 1993 in order to provide very broad protection for religious liberty.” RFRA restored the standard of strict scrutiny that the Court must use when determining whether the Government has a compelling interest in curtailing an American’s First Amendment right to freely exercise their religious beliefs. In case of Hobby Lobby, the Court found that the Obama Administration had failed this test; Alito stated, “The government has failed to show the mandate is the least restrictive means of advancing its interest in guaranteeing cost-free birth control.”
Importantly, the Supreme Court also reminded us that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not give license to discrimination, as many on the Left have mistakenly claimed. On Monday, the Supreme Court directly repudiated this notion, specifically reiterating that RFRA provides no defense to racial discrimination in hiring. No federal or state RFRA has ever been used to discriminate against someone. In fact, RFRA is actually about preventing discrimination against any American due to their religious beliefs.
In 2014, Ohioans must take up the same cause to ensure that no Ohioan is forced to choose between following their faith and submitting to unlawful and unnecessary government infringement or individual coercion.
As the Center for Arizona Policy declared, “When the force of government compels one to speak or act contrary to their conscience, the government injures not only the dignity of the afflicted, but the dignity of our society as a whole.”*
In a free and diverse society, we respect the freedom to live out our convictions.
Every American should be free to live and work according to their beliefs without fear of punishment by the government. As President Clinton said when signing the 1993 federal RFRA bill into law, religious freedom is literally “our first freedom.”
Please bookmark www.ccv.org/freedom and check it regularly for resources and developments as CCV presses on to defend Ohioans’ first freedom.
All opinions expressed belong solely to their authors and may not be construed as the opinions of other writers or of OCR staff.
* Cathi Herrod’s statement on the veto of SB 1062: http://www.azpolicy.org/newsroom/cathi-herrods-statement-on-the-veto-of-sb-1062